Genova, from a city of immigration to a city of migration

Italano p. 2

2016/01/04 - Written by Vittoria Zorfini
Genova-1895 P.Maldotti sulla nave con gli emigranti Archivio SER Roma
Genova, from a city of immigration to a city of migration
A formidable Maritime power of the Medieval period, Genova transformed itself in the 1800s as a launching post for poor Italian immigrants who dreamed of “L’America.”  

Today, the birth city of Christopher Columbus has become an arrival point for new immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. Focus on the Ligurian port city, which has profoundly changed Italy and Italians. This Ligurian port city has profoundly changed Italy and Italians.

Genova’s great transformation came about during the 19th century when southern Italian peasants, motivated by hunger and poverty, risked everything to live the American dream. The immigration of this era gave a major boost to the growth of the Ligurian port, which turned into an important international layover. From 1861 to 1875, historians have estimated that 2 million individuals have converged on this Ligurian city in order to set sail for the New World (fonte MEM Memoria e Migrazioni).

From 1876 to 1901, the port of Genova made up 61% of oceanic departures, with an annual average of 73,960 boardings (The History of Italian Immigration, 2001). 1913 was the pinnacle of overseas emigration with 209,835 people leaving from Naples, 138,166 from Genova and 62,745 from Palermo.

This enormous influx of people profoundly impacted and profited the Ligurian city. During the period between 1800 and 1900, the maritime economy along Italy’s naval industry benefited from a financial windfall thanks to the transport of goods and passengers. This was, in fact, the era of transatlantic journeys with ships like Il Duilio and its twin ship Giulio Cesare. At the time, Italy owned some of the largest transatlantic ships ever built such as the Rex and the Conte di Savoia – the latter was duplicated in Federico Fellini’s film, Amarcord.

Archivio Fondazione Paolo Cresci 

If on one hand Italy boasts its riches, another side of it is filled with Italians who are preparing to migrate to faraway countries, but their departures began well before the sailing ships.

“Immigrants access the city in crowded trains or steamers and they camp along the piers or the streets surrounding the port. They stand motionless under the hot sun or pouring rain, waiting for their turn. The setting is always the same.” writes Illustazione Italiana, a newspaper of the time.


 Once they arrived in Genova, the migrants waited for days to embark and the poorest among them waited around on the streets or on the piers. For these immigrants, there were no reception facilities or asylum systems.

"Gli Emigranti" di Angelo Tommassi, Galleria d'Arte Moderna Roma

In the Maritime stations, immigrants were subject to medical checks and their luggage was examined. It wasn’t uncommon for some of them to fall in the water and drown during the boarding rush. In fact, ship owners attempted to get as many people on board as possible without any regard for the 2 metres of space allotted for each person.

Imbarco, Archivio SER Roma

An official from the marina wrote, “Some of these old ships look like medieval vessels crammed with slaves.” The difficult travelling conditions for third-class passengers often resulted in premature deaths. It was only in 1901 that a limit was set on the number of passengers allowed aboard, but the space in the lower decks continued to be crammed nonetheless.


Terza Classe a bordo del Conterosso, Archivio Fondazione Paolo Cresci 

Genova was divided between the rich and the poor. On the one hand, the third class who was forced to sleep on the ground before embarking, and on the other end, the first class of passengers who waited to board at the Maritime Station of Ponte dei Mille. The iconic building was last used in 1930 and was famous for its ornate living rooms where it was possible to encounter people like Harry Truman, Orson Welles, Igor Stravinsky, Anthony Quinn, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Elia Kazan.

Archivio Fondazione Paolo Cresci 

Today, Genova has again become a centre of important historical change as Italy is experiencing a new social divide between the rich and the poor. This new phenomenon of immigration is changing the Ligurian city, in particular.

Now, Genova is no longer a point of departure as it was once but has become an arrival point for new immigrants from North Africa and from Sub-Saharan Africa. The city thus still remains a migration hub. One need only consider that one in ten residents of Genova are foreigners, according to data from the Direzione di statistica del Comune and the Centro Studi Medi. The number of newcomers in Genova rose from 6,182 in 1993-1997 to 32,705 in 1998-2012. This demonstrates how Genova serves as a testament to the exceptional story of emigration and immigration in Italy.



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